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Crawling bot glows, camouflages itself with dye

DARPA's soft-bodied walkers, developed by engineers at Harvard University, can stand out or blend in with their environment, and may take on military tasks.

Depending on the fluids and gases it's pumped with, the robot can glow or camouflage itself.

In addition to slithering, crawling, and flying just about anywhere, what if robots could camouflage themselves? This tentacled prototype can be made to look like -- or stand out from -- its background with a simple injection of dyes.

Developed by engineers at Harvard University's Whitesides Research Group, the "soft machine" silicone quadruped crawls along on pressurized gases fed through an umbilical cord.

Users can send different dyes through channels in the robot's body, allowing it to blend in or stand out in startling fashion, such as glowing in the dark. Color changes take about 30 seconds, but don't require further power to sustain the disguise.

The research is published in the journal Science, where the authors describe the microfluidic channels in the bot that allow it to change its color, pattern, surface temperature, and even luminescence.

The research is part of DARPA's Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program, which seeks robots to "assist in the execution of military operations far more effectively across a far greater range of missions" than current machines.

Check out the video below from DARPA, or a longer clip at New Scientist.

"The color of these microfluidic networks can be changed simultaneously in the visible and infrared -- a capability that organisms do not have," the Harvard researchers write.

"These strategies begin to imitate the functions, although not the anatomies, of color-changing animals."

DARPA, meanwhile, is most excited about how cheap the camo-bot is. It costs less than $100, and could be had for a few bucks apiece in the future, leading the agency to enthuse that "the combination of low cost and increased capabilities means DARPA has removed one of the major obstacles to greater DoD adoption of robot technology."

Could this lead to an army of glowing Wacky Wall Walkers? Perhaps they would be part of a mobile eavesdropping network that could blend in with its environment.